Is Poetry Sometimes Informative in a Special Way?

The Case of “Dover Beach”

In the previous “Durkheim Anomie” post we saw the following lines:

“In Durkheim’s view, traditional religions often provided the basis for the shared values which the anomic individual lacks. Furthermore, he argued that the division of labor that had been prevalent in economic life since the Industrial Revolution led individuals to pursue egoistic ends rather than seeking the good of a larger community.”

Along these lines, the great English critic Matthew Arnold senses the rise of an anarchic anomie nightmare world coming into view as the old anchors such as religious beliefs crumble away:

Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold was an English poet and cultural critic who worked as an inspector of schools. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the celebrated headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator.

Born: December 24, 1822, Laleham, Staines-upon-Thames, United Kingdom
Died: April 15, 1888, Liverpool, United Kingdom

Essay 14: Education via Literature: Crafts Versus Craftiness

We have already mentioned the famous “Ode to Man” in the Antigone of Sophocles, a play which serves as a theme in Heidegger’s classic, “What Is Metaphysics?”

One aspect of “man” that Sophocles highlights for us is the troubled link between craftiness (bad skill) and crafts (admirable skills, say carpentry.)

His “Ode to Man” goes like this:

“Wonders are many, yet of all
Things is Man the most wonderful.
He can sail on the stormy sea
Though the tempest rage, and the loud
Waves roar around, as he makes his
Path amid the towering surge.
Backwards and forwards, from season to season, his
Ox-team drives along the ploughshare.

“He can trap the cheerful birds,
Setting a snare, and all the wild
Beasts of the earth he has learned to catch, and
Fish that teem in the deep sea, with
Nets knotted of stout cords; of
Such inventiveness is man
Through his inventions he becomes lord
Even of the beasts of the mountain: the long-haired
Horse he subdues to the yoke on his neck, and the
Hill-bred bull of strength untiring

“And speech he has learned, and thought
So swift, and the temper of mind
To dwell within cities, and not to lie bare
Amid the keen biting frosts
Or cower beneath pelting rain;
Painful sickness he can cure
By his own skill…”

“Surpassing belief, the device and
Cunning that Man has attained…”

(Antigone, Choral Ode 1, Oxford University Press, 1998, page 13)

Sophocles introduces the “strain” between good skillfulness and tricky “cunning” which leads not to comfort and greatness but to woe.

Notice that this Sophocles vision of man as good-craftsman but bad-craftsman of schemes and plots is a deep theme in later culture.

In post-Sophoclean writings (say Roman literature) writing there is the constant tension between “machina” (our machine) and machination.

These writers sense in some implicit way that technology and crafts are benevolent “tricks” based on man’s inventiveness (as you see mentioned in Antigone and the “Ode to Man”) but that man becomes destructively wily and cunning, destroying himself and others.

One classic example of this comes from the great History of the Peloponnesian War of Thucydides. Pericles is the orator of genius while Alcibiades is a “crafty” demagogue and trickster whose words are not uplifting à la Pericles but part of a “deception” game. His sudden manipulative call for an invasion of Sicily in 415 helps to finish Athens.

Essay 10: Towards a Cosmopolitan Re-Education

Education today is still completely parochial and we will now give an example of making education completely cosmopolitan (i.e., based on global “inputs”).

There’s a Japanese critique of the entire Western tradition of technology-and-man defeating nature. We will come to the Japanese critique in a moment. First, we remind the reader of Western ideas of man as conqueror of nature: think of Sophocles’ classic play Antigone where perhaps the most famous choral ode in Greek drama occurs, “Ode to Man” which celebrates man’s techno-rise (our word technology derives from Greek “techne”):

“Humanity has built ships to conquer the seas, crafted plows to tame the earth, bent animals to his will, raised houses to defeat the rain and the snow.”

Nearly everything is about humanity asserting its will over nature.

One finds a restatement of this conquest-of nature theme in fellow Greek dramatist Aeschylus in his great Prometheus Bound, where he criticizes the men of old in their pre-Promethean ignorance:


“They handled all things in bewilderment and confusion. They did not know of building houses with bricks to face the sun; they did not know how to work in wood. They lived like swarming ants in holes in the ground, in the sunless caves of the earth. For them there was no secure token by which to tell winter nor the flowering spring nor the summer with its crops; all their doings were without intelligent calculation until I showed them the rising of the stars, and the settings, hard to observe. And further I discovered to them numbering, pre-eminent among subtle devices, and the combining of letters as a means of remembering all things, the Muses’ mother, skilled in craft.

“It was I who first yoked beasts for them in the yokes and made of those beasts the slaves of trace chain and pack saddle that they might be man’s substitute in the hardest tasks; and I harnessed to the carriage, so that they loved the rein, horses, the crowning pride of the rich man’s luxury. It was I and none other who discovered ships, the sail-driven wagons that the sea buffets. Such were the contrivances that I discovered for men.

“Greatest was this: in the former times if a man fell sick he had no defense against the sickness, neither healing food nor drink, nor unguent; but through the lack of drugs men wasted away, until I showed them the blending of mild simples wherewith they drive out all manner of diseases…It was I who made visible to men’s eyes the flaming signs of the sky that were before dim. So much for these. beneath the earth, man’s hidden blessing, copper, iron, silver, and gold—will anyone claim to have discovered these before I did?

“One brief word will tell the whole story: all arts that mortals have come from Prometheus.”

(Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, University of Chicago Press, Aeschylus II, 1956, pages 155-156)

One can begin to see how “Promethean man” culminates in Francis Bacon’s (died in 1626) admonition to “place Nature on the rack so that man might force her to tell her secrets.” 

Thus, the Western tradition comes close to a war on nature itself.

Now we come to a critique of this from Japan on the other side of the Pacific:

Natsume Sōseki (died in 1916), the greatest writer in modern Japanese literature, has a protagonist in the 1913 classic Kojin (“The Wayfarer”):

“Constant motion and flow is our very fate.”

“Man’s insecurity stems from the advance of science. Never once has science, which never ceases to move forward, allowed us to pause.

From walking to rickshaw, from rickshaw to carriage, from carriage to train, from train to automobile, from there on to the dirigible, further on to the airplane, and further on and on—no matter how far we may go, it won’t let us take a breath. How far it will sweep us along, nobody knows for sure. It is really frightening.”

(Sōseki, The Wayfarer, Tuttle Books, 1967, page 285)

This sense of things that Promethean/Baconian man will place mankind in a runaway train with no brakes or endpoint is a critique that makes us think. The counterargument that we know of no other way out of poverty is “co-valid” and we have a kind of legitimate “argument without end” which cannot be easily dismissed. We cannot really divide the world into proponents of science/technology on the one side and Luddites on the other. That is too simplistic. There are legitimate concerns about de-humanization through modern science and technology in Adorno and Horkheimer, say, who fear a global shipwreck based on this “runaway train with no brakes or endpoint.” The current climate change crisis comes to mind.

Our main point here is not to enter this argument or to take sides but to show the reader how a cosmopolitan “post-parochial” education might look and how this kind of meta-intelligent pedagogy would be deeply “eye-opening” and help the Wittgenstein process where “light dawns gradually over the whole” as we have seen.

Cosmopolitan Re-Education That Includes Movies and Songs

Another dimension of cosmopolitanism in education is the complete assimilation of movies and songs into the analysis (i.e., all-media cosmopolitanism). here’s a movie example that continues the argument between the conquer nature position and de-humanization fears.

Think of the movie Things to Come.

Things to Come is a 1936 movie masterpiece based on an H.G. Wells sociological sci-fi masterpiece.

In the last minutes of the movie, there’s an exchange between “John Cabal” (played by Raymond Massey) who looks at the stars and says, “All or nothing. We must conquer all of it or disappear. No rest for man in general.”

The other man (“Passworthy”) radically differs: “we are such small little creatures and cannot live that way.”

The storyline of this movie:

A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities. 

In the year 2035, on the eve of man’s first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.